Friday, March 23, 2018

What color should glacier algae be?

This is an article that came out this month in an international journal on microbial ecology. My co-authors include Ganey who did the experiment with chalk dust and McKenzie Skiles of the University of Utah.

I am psyched about it because it was the "Editor's Choice" for their March issue and because it mixes a bunch of science that I like: mathematical modeling, simple experiments, and organisms that live on glaciers.

If I tweeted, I'd tweet this. It's extra neat because it's free to read and the Oxford University Press asked me to post on their blog about glacier algae. That post comes out on Sunday, March 25.

Strangely, perhaps, I have been more absorbed in the statistical analysis of scientific data than outdoor adventures of late, perhaps because.....

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dick Griffith Film Kickstarter

A friend of mine who’s one of the best whitewater boaters I have ever paddled with said that the adventuring community and what we do is like a big, woven tapestry that we all contribute to with our own adventures.

Some contributors add exceptionally colorful, wide and long-lasting patterns. In
Alaska, Dick Griffith has woven a long, thick, and wide band of enriching color.

He’s done this by developing hallmark outdoor sports in Alaska like packrafting, adventure racing, and long-wilderness traverses. And by being a humble, wry-humored, welcoming old guy.

He arguably and singlehandedly started the on-going packrafting revolution.

And adventure racing? Some might claim its roots in New Zealand, but the reality is that America’s first ideas of multi-day multi-sport adventure races arrived the way the packraft and the fatbike did: from Alaska, drifting south like whispers and rumors and dreams of wild freedom.

The Wilderness Classic, Iditaski, and Iditasport -- that’s where American adventure racing--and fatbiking and packrafting--really began, and there at the beginning was Dick, who was, essentially, the only adult in the room at the time.

And while long wilderness treks have become a rite of passage among young people today, Dick’s 400 mile wilderness solo walk from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk in 1959 marked an early shift from the hunting-fishing-tracked vehicle outdoorsmen of the 40s and 50s and 60s to the self-propelled adventurers of today.

For those of us who know Dick personally, he’s also been an essential component of our social community. Someone who watches out for us. Someone who gives back. Someone who builds trails. Without Dick’s attention and interest the Wilderness Classic would likely have died out decades ago. But over 35 years old it’s the longest running, true adventure race in the world.

By the time Dick came to Alaska he’d already pioneered the use of big inflatables on the Colorado River in the 1940s and mini-inflatables in Mexico’s Copper Canyon in the 1950s. Soon after arriving here he made an epic walk along, across, and through the Brooks Range.

I remember how he described that trip to me when I was in my early 20s, hoping to one day make my own Brooks Range Crossing. He said he started with a partner and three dogs. The partner went lame with bad feet after sixty miles and quit. Later, one of the dogs died. Dick ran low on food and ate the second dog. The third one, he said, got smart and ran off.

Dick did this in 1959, the year APU was founded, the year before I was born.

Before that people had walked across Alaska, but they did it for money, or fame, or glory. Dick did it because, as he once said, “Sometimes a man just has to walk.”

Sixty years later people are finally catching up to Dick. They walk from one end of the Brooks Range to the other, ski long distances, packraft the Grand Canyon.

Today there are a bunch of young Alaskans contributing to the tapestry that is Alaskan adventure. People like Luc Mehl, Bretwood Higman, Thai Verzone, Bjorn Olson. But we all just add on where Dick started, where Dick left his mark, where Dick pointed the way. We’re just dabbing on our own personal touches thinking we’re something new, we’re something special, we’re somehow remarkable.

Maybe we are. But we wouldn’t be here doing it without Dick doing it first.

I met Dick when he was my age now. He was 55. I was just a punk-ass kid, 21 years old. In the intervening years, Dick went on to do a string of adventures: dozens of Wilderness Classics, Iditakis, Iditasports, and back-to-back Crow Pass Crossings. Solo packrafting down the Grand Canyon. Skiing several thousand miles from Unalakleet to Hudson Bay.

At the age in life when most folks settle down to write memoirs, or garden roses, or baby-sit grandkids, or nurse our achy joints, or maybe just pour ourselves a few glasses of red wine and read a book, Dick got up and went, lived a second life beyond his early adventures, adventures that would fill a memoir, after raising a family and in between baby-sitting a granddaughter, mostly living on his retirement from a respectable career as an engineer, sharing books and wine and beer and salads with all of us "orphans".

I showed up at Hope in 1982 for that first Hope to Homer race with just a bivy sack to sleep in. Dick shared his tent with me there at the start.

I’ll never forget the next day. Dick’s adventure partner, Bruce Stafford, dumped Dick’s pack out on Hope’s main street looking for Dick’s “secret weapon”, then hiding a bottle of booze in his pack. Dick just stood back and chuckled and clucked at Bruce. 50 miles later Dick discovered the bottle in his pack and buried it along the Sterling Highway, recovering it on his way home to Anchorage.

Nor can I forget a week after that, limping along the beach of Kachemak Bay when a half-naked George Ripley, the race founder, ran up behind me and Dave Manzer--who’s sitting over there. George grabbed me and shook me by the shoulders saying, “You better get a move on, Dick Griffith’s just 20 minutes behind!”

That got me running, and like Dick, I never run anywhere I can walk.

There are a handful of people—long-time friends and family—who’ve profoundly influenced my life. Dick is one of them. I have been fortunate to have photogenic and willing partners over the years. Fortunate to have the opportunity to somehow justify our adventures with magazine articles and photos, TV shows, even a packrafting book. But I can honestly say that if I’d never met Dick that August evening in Hope over 35 years ago, that I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I’d venture to say that if it were not for Dick, modern Alaskan outdoor adventure would not be what it is today.

I’d venture to say that what young Alaskan adventurers do today, and dream to do tomorrow, well, we owe that to Dick, to what he did in his 50s, 60s, 70s, even his 80s, as well as what he did when he, too, was young.

This documentary will give viewers the opportunity to hear Dick’s wit and wisdom.

It will show him moving and walking in ways a book just cannot.

Dick’s story is an important one, an influential one, one that needs to be told and one that we all want to hear.

Please help support the effort to finish this film.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Firn Line Live at Alaska Rock Gym

This was a fun night. Thanks to Evan and the Rock Gym for making it happen.

What really made it great for me was all the people I knew who were there: Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, Carl Tobin and his daughter named after Steve Garvy, Peggy of course, Chris Flowers, James and Nancy Brady, Rod Hancock, Clint Helander, Sam Johnson, Charlie Sassara, Tony Perelli and Becky King, and a bunch more.

Being live in front of them was comforting and a warm reminder of how great our community is in Anchorage and Alaska.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trial and error,
Failure and terror,
The truth of the matter at hand.
Death in a whisper
Is so much to weather
For the life of a
Wife and her man.

Costa Rica
December 2014

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Pseudo-Haiku Notebook

We went on a bird-watching centered vacation last Spring Break (2017) in Arizona, following a route mapped out for us by Brad Meiklejohn.

We were struck by all the Border Guards and other birders we saw on our trip, hence the focus.

Redstarts, midway down
Cool canyons, stop their songs when
Dogs guard our borders.
--March 15, Ramsey Canyon

Birders and border
Guards chase wary immigrants
Crossing dusty roads.
--March 16, Border grasslands

Where migrants pass
"David Roberts, is that you?"
Nancy breaks her arm.
--March 17, Sycamore Canyon, AZ-Sonora border

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Firn Line

Many years—maybe like two decades ago in the 1990s—Anchorage entrepreneur, Bob Kaufman, started his Alaska Channel and began tinkering with video.

He and I once discussed how great it would be to document all the amazing people we knew back then. Unrelated to our musings, something like an audio archive sprang up at University of Alaska Fairbanks  as “Project  Jukebox”.

That UAF project is great, but when I look at the photos of the people they’ve interviewed I see very few of the faces of those who I know (exceptions are Andrew Embick, Art Davidson, Paul Dinkewalter, Doug Geeting, Dave Johnston, Knut Kielland, Ian McRae, Ralph Tingey and others from the Denali Mountaineering project) but it’s all very NPS and UAF centric and seems more archival that anything (although archival is still important!).

Enter Evan Phillips’ entertaining podcast “The Firn Line”. 

This is the one I like more. It's about people I know and admire and with Evan's great music, too.

There are (so far) 18 episodes in the First Season, but the stories and production quality are like audio frosting on a story-telling/philosophizing cake and it's Evan’s music that really makes The Firn Line worth listening to. So far he's interviewed mountaineers including Carl Tobin, Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, ClintHelander, Katie Strong, Dusty Eroh, Charlie Sassara, Sam Johnson, Marc Westman, Vern Tejas, and most recently Jack Tackle.

The Firn Line is really worth our support. Unlike the UAF Jukebox sponsored by State and Federal dollars, The Firn Line is supported by people like you and me and done by a member of our community.

Have a listen to the Firn Line and you’ll see what I mean. And if we all sign up as patrons on Patreon we can be sure to get a Season 2 with more great interviews and music.

Now, look, full disclosure: I did a Firn Line interview with Evan last Saturday, live at the Alaska Rock Gym and greatly enjoyed it. 

Peggy said it was like I got my own, personal version of “Artic Entries”, but instead of 7 minutes and one story I got 70 minutes and maybe a dozen—and six of those were about Chuck Comstock alone!

So, have a listen to the Firn Line and then sign up as a subscribing patron to keep Evan going and to get adventurers who have been too irreverent for UAF and the NPS documented on a most entertaining venue.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


Earlier this month I flew from Anchorage to Keflavik, Iceland and then on to Nuuk, Greenland.

I'd never been to either country but always wanted to go, of course. Many of you readers have likely been to both on much longer, gnarlier, or more in-depth or important trips, so please be patient with my rather shallow visits to each.

Greenland has always been too far for me, dollar-wise, and Iceland never seemed wild enough to warrant recreational/travel trips. But for like $800 I could get to Iceland and back from ANC. Greenland cost a bit more, maybe another $1000 from Keflavik.

I went there for the 7th annual Polar and Arctic Microbe Conference. There were about 50 people at the conference and from all over the world. Many Euros and UK-folk, a few Americans, even some Asians and a colorful character named Craig from New Zealand.

Ganey was presenting his recently completed masters thesis. We re-worked it and wrote a new paper we had published this week on line. It got some press that I keep telling Ganey about. He says maybe I should just get a Twitter account.

Maybe I should, but probably I won't, but I have been  psyched to have the recognition for our work.

Why? Well, first Ganey did a great job hiking up and down to the Harding Icefield and skiing in with APU ski-team members like every couple weeks a few summers back to manipulate snow algae and measure melt. He solved all kinds of problems and collected all kinds of data and used R and GIS and GPS and spectrometers and microscopes and satellite data to produce a super-neat, comprehensive project.

And second, the idea is about how red-snow algae melt snow and I have had the idea for many years, and always got pushback-smirks from earth scientists about the idea--which is common worldwide I learned at the conference from other biologists with the same idea.

So getting it published in Nature Geoscience gives the idea some credibility and maybe gives me some future traction in getting funding to continue doing glacier ecology with APU students, something I have been doing for about fifteen years now, including ice-worms and bacteria as well as red-snow algae.

So this Greenland conference was good excuse to go to Greenland and I brought my packraft, too, of course. Tom Diegle says I should write a book with the title "My Carry-on is a Packraft."

I overnighted in Iceland and rented a car for two days and drove around to see the Geyser Basin and the nearest super cool gigantic waterfall.

It felt like Europe--both the birds and the plants are European, even though Greenland is closer than Europe--plopped down on a big ole' Aleutian Island or like a Scandanavian version of New Zealand set in the North Atlantic instead of South Pacific. There were neat looking sheep and little horses and cows and the animals always hunkered together like they must in mid winter, staying warm, surviving gales.

At first I wasn't too thrilled about the place, but taking the car back to the airport I drove along the south coast and thought, "wow, what a cool place."

I want to go back with Peggy and hike tundra and float glacier rivers without bears, especially after about messing my pants in June when a burly grizz charged within thirty feet of me before turning when I threw a boulder at it to stop it.

The people in Iceland spoke English and had real Alaskan-like independence. There are more people in Anchorage than the whole country, but it was WAAYYY to expensive for me. I bought food to take to Greenland, thinking Greenland would be like the bush and Iceland like Anchorage, but no. I think food prices were actuall cheaper in Greenland's Nuuk.

The flight to Nuuk was three hours long in a little two engine Dash-8. I wanted at least four engines, since we were crossing hours of ocean and ice.

I'd intended to go farther north from Nuuk to do a little trip by Kangersuluuaq from the Greenland Ice Sheet to the ocean, but found out it'd cost me $1,000 more! So I balked.

Besides Nuuk and it surroundings were simply amazing.

Nuuk is the biggest city in Greenland. It has like half (so about 17,000 people) of countries 35,000 people. It sits on a wee craggy peninsula at the tip of a 100-mile peninsula in a deep complex of fiords on the west coast of Greenland.

It's about the same latitude as Fairbanks and Nome. It feels like Nome climate with Arrigetch Peaks on growth hormones set in Glacier Bay, if you'll indulge me in some mixed geographic Alaskana metaphors.

You can walk from one end of the road system to the other in like an hour. It has a wonderful sheltered port that's the central hub for shipping and ferries that go up and down the southern half of Greenland's west coast, from Disko Bay south really.

I only visited Nuuk and loved it's colorful houses and even the big appartment buildings. Lonely Planet online pans the place, but I was utterly fascinated. Utterly!

Most of the people I saw as I walked the streets in, by turns, windy drizzle or crisp blue sunshine, were Greenlandic People. They don't call themselves Inuit or Innupiaq. They said they were Greenlandic People and even the high school kids I met spoke Greenlandic, Danish, and English. They were beautiful people and I loved the feel of northern Alaska in a European urban-like environment. Easily the neatest place I went in the last 18 months of my extended sabbatical.

Ganey and I ate at a Thai restaurant where you could have whale sushi made from narwhal. I bougth musk-ox sausage I took on my "Kanger-roo Tour".

No, that's no typo (I know how to spell kangaroo -- the coolest animal I saw this sabbatical -- maybe the second after the Peruvian jaguar on the banks of Madre de Dios River -- was a tree kangaroo sliding down a tree-fern bole like a fireman on alarm at the station).

"Kanger" is Greenlandic for fjord and paddling a packraft with the winds and tides then hiking over the intervening passes between fjords in Greenland--fjord hopping--is a kanger-roo tour.

There are two hut to hut peninsula walks that I know of. One on Nuuk's peninsula from Nuuk to Kapisillit and the other between Kangersuluuaq and Sisimiut (which you can get to by ferry from Nuuk). Boats go to Kapisillit on thursday.

I only had 4 days left before the conference after spending 3 writing a paper in a wonderful hostel. I found an outdoor store in Nuuk that sold topo maps at my favorite scale (1:250,000) and fuel although I had an alcohol stove and just bought the Danish/Greenland version of Heet.

I hiked across town, over a mountain, and stayed in a couple huts, even camped out with a white Arctic fox visiting my mid in the full moon night. Paddled up one fiord with a tail wind on an incoming tide and out another with a down-fjord wind on an outgoing tide.

Saw an Ivory gull in the fjord with icebergs and a white gyrfalcon soaring above Nuuk. Watched a peregrine chase a huge white-tailed eagle and followed eiders who dove under the water en mass. The eagle was huge, bigger than bald or golden eagles with deep wings and a short broad tail.

Ravens were everywhere. A group of eight young ones followed me along in my boat. I watched one carrying a sea urchin in its bill, then drop it to break and eat it, solving the mystery of how all the sea urchin shells had got up on the tundra.

Like Iceland, there're no grizzly bears, or bears of any kind deep in the fjords of the south. I think the polar bears are out on the ocean coast, near ice mostly, hunting seals. The reindeer are smaller than our caribou and rarer, small herds, and sparse.

Greenland in September felt a bit emptier than Alaska's arctic with its blueberries, growing on acidic granite derived soil, not as sweet.

But I am saving my money to go back. And I am hoping that Alpacka puts together a pointy-bowed, long and skinny, zipper boat with a whitewater deck -- maybe even call it the "Kanger-roo"?

So I can go back and paddle into the wind and surf like a Greenlandic Person in a skin boat qayak.

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